Last week’s rioting in Baltimore came as little surprise to Ashley M. Howard, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University New Orleans.
As a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ms. Howard researched the 1960s racial unrest in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Omaha for her 2012 dissertation, "Prairie Fires: Urban Rebellions as Black Working Class Politics in Three Midwestern Cities." She is now working to expand it into a book that examines how race, class, and gender factor into whether people participate in urban uprisings.
The Chronicle asked Ms. Howard for her take on what has been happening in Baltimore. Following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Q. What do you see as the key differences between the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore and the riots of the 1960s, in terms of how and why people acted out and how society responded?
A. The biggest game changer of these most recent uprisings is the advent of social media. I think this can be a very powerful tool for participants to frame their grievances, to document what’s happening, and to really shift the narrative of what’s taking place. What used to be such an isolated feeling of abuse or marginalization has now become kind of a shared national experience of despondence.
With the 1960s you would actually have local city governments enact media moratoriums, so that, especially in local markets, they would not disseminate information about the uprisings going on in their hometown. Local-newspaper coverage would have more on uprisings occurring in other cities than they would have in their own hometown. It kind of "othered" these events.
Now, with this discursive ability of social media, you really get to see people sharing their experiences, telling alternative visions of what is going on. That has an incredible democratizing effect.
Q. Are there important lessons we failed to learn in studying the urban uprisings of the 1960s?
A. Certainly. I think one of the most crucial lessons that we have neglected to learn is that violent protest is on a continuum of protest. These aren’t aberrant events. They are very much in line, and part and parcel, [with] more standard organized types of nonviolent direct action.
In the past 50 years those uprisings have really been remembered as just black rage — people going out into the streets, burning and looting — and not actually looking at the antecedent events that led people to pursue this very desperate type of protest. In fact, the violent protests and nonviolent protests often interact symbiotically. When you have people referring to protesters or activists just as "thugs," or out there just to get goods, that really diminishes the power and the political agency that these people have had.
Violent protest has been a longstanding tradition in working-class communities. In many senses, it is often lionized. When you think of the labor revolts and protests that happened in the late 1800s, early 1900s, those are seen as kind of these champion moments of the proletariat and populism rising up.
But when African-Americans become the primary actors, in the 1960s, they become demonized. The uprisings did not occur in a vacuum. This came after nearly a decade of organizing in which very slow movement was taking place. There was very much a change in how people understood their communities and their roles and their rights as American citizens.
Q. Is the damage associated with such unrest solely a loss for the communities where it occurs, or is the damage at least partly offset by political gains, as those in power feel pressure to respond?
A. It is both. In the oral-history interviews that I have done, people often look at this moment as a line in the sand. They feel that this was a time when investment left their community, when business owners and the black bourgeoisie left the community.
I personally take a bit of issue with that understanding. Undoubtedly, the uprisings marked important moments of change, and this is largely because participants put forth grievances, specific and tangible changes they wanted the city government to respond to. However, what you see as the decade progresses in the 1960s, it becomes the property of diminishing returns. With each subsequent urban rebellion you saw people getting fewer and fewer concessions.
With the modern moment what I think is occurring is that this can be a very positive thing because it brings it to the national and, quite frankly, international media. This creates a very powerful incentive for local government, and the federal government even, to act in the interests of those people whose voices have often gone unheard.
Q. Do you foresee Baltimore returning to calm in the coming months? If we could magically end police misconduct of the sort alleged there, would we end the threat of civil unrest in Baltimore and other cities?
A. I think that after [Baltimore’s] Mayor [Stephanie] Rawlings-Blake put forth the curfew, that largely stopped the threat of unrest. But I don’t think that diminishes the fact that people are still upset that black men and black women and black children feel constantly threatened.
This is what’s difficult about rebellions. There is often no magical formula to predict what’s going to happen where. In fact, many of the uprisings that occurred in the 1960s … nobody saw coming. You look at Watts, and it didn’t have the urban squalor that people associate with black urban life. You think of Detroit, which was a model city in which African-Americans had strong working-class jobs. People were wildly surprised when uprisings occurred there.
I forecast that this is not the end of this kind of violent protest. But it is going to be difficult to pinpoint where this is going to come next. The rebellions that have taken place … have alerted people to this as a potential tactic. Folks across the United States may still dabble in this kind of action until meaningful changes happen. Police brutality is not the only issue that concerns African-Americans today.
Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.